The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash (1980) is a carnivalesque, cumulative picture book written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. This picture book is a great mentor text for the way it handles dialogue visually, and also for the way the ironic distance between text and image expands at the end, leading to a satisfying climax.Continue reading “The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash by Hakes Noble and Kellogg”
Arthur’s Eyes (1979) by Marc Brown is an early story of the popular Arthur series, about an ambiguously animal creature (only after looking it up do I understand he’s a brown aardvark) who lives with his nuclear family in an American suburb. This is a well-crafted story and really speaks to its young audience. The book is now over 40 years old. Reading Arthur’s Eyes in 2020, I notice some ideological issues with the plot and characterisation that date the story badly.Continue reading “Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown”
Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.
First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.Continue reading “Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown”
Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.Continue reading “Little House On The Prairie”
Mercy Watson To The Rescue (2005) is a picture book divided into chapters for the emergent reader, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. I love the Mercy Watson series, and have previously written about Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride and Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig and Mercy Watson Fights Crime. This installment is similar to Mercy Watson Fights Crime, because she ends up saving the day, purely by accident!Continue reading “Mercy Watson To The Rescue by DiCamillo and Van Dusen”
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982) is a beautiful picture book with a gentle message encouraging children to create beauty in the world. Cooney’s art is a mixture of full-bleed landscapes and spot illustration.
That said, this is a classic example of an old picture book with an environmental message which has not held up well, at least outside America.
(Actually, not so well within America, either. Miss Rumphius features cigar store Indians in it and on the prow of the ship.)Continue reading “Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney”
Bread and Jam for Frances is a picture book written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, first published in 1964 as a part of a series about a girl in the body of a badger, who lives in a middle class house and has access to all the spoils you’d expect of 1960s middle class Westerner.
I never came across this picture book as a kid, but a book with a similar plot must have really affected me because it was probably read once in class, yet I remember it profoundly: The book I’m talking about is Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy, one of the Pig Family picture books by Mary Rayner. This family of pigs might be considered the 1980s follow-up to the Hobans’ Frances stories. (I’ve taken a close look at Garth Pig and the Ice-cream Lady on this blog.)
In Rayner’s 1981 version of Bread and Jam for Frances, the mother pig of the Pig Family gets utterly sick and tired of her piglets hoeing into the tomato sauce so she feeds them nothing but tomato sauce until they crave a more varied diet.
No matter how carefully she flavored the stews or spiced the puddings, the piglets always squealed for tomato ketchup. She had always tried to stop them from having it, and make one bottle last a week, but it was always gobbled up by Monday and then the piglets would grumble until she went to the supermarket again.
“But things will be different soon,” thought Mother Pig happily. She reached down one of the big jars and emptied it into a huge soup tureen.
My mother was frequently complaining about the family using too much tomato sauce as well, which is probably why the story stuck with me. (Criticism was mostly directed at our father, though, who used sauce not only for flavour, but to cool hot food to a more scoffable temperature.)
DIDACTICISM AND FOOD PREFERENCES
Do these stories do what they intend, that is, to encourage children to eat a more wide and varied diet? One Goodreads reviewer of Rayner’s picture book said, “I read this to my daughter in the hopes of encouraging her to eat less ketchup, but all it did was make her want ketchup sandwiches.”
I doubt these stories work as intended. I do remember Rayner’s story, but I don’t remember going easy on the tomato sauce. They appeal to adults for didactic reasons, and to children for the carnivalesque element. Eating nothing but your favourite food is peak carnivalesque fun. The ending of both stories doesn’t resonate; doesn’t count.
Parenting culture has changed since the 1980s and certainly since the 1960s. For better or for worse, modern parents hand more food choice over to their children. I know plenty of kids who’d be quite happy to eat nothing but white bread and jam for weeks on end, possibly forever. Some of them have sensory issues around eating, which is the first thing I thought about Frances as she described and personified her eggs.
STORY STRUCTURE OF BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES
Frances is a fussy eater. In fact, the only thing she likes is bread and jam. So she’s delighted when Mother and Father grant her wish and give her bread and jam at every meal. This endearing story of how Frances faces unlimited bread and jam is a classic that will continue to be gobbled up by children, picky eaters, and parents everywhere.marketing copy
Frances is also described as ‘America’s favourite badger’. (Frances is about as badger as Olivia is pig.)
Frances has food preferences (possibly for sensory reasons) but she is a member of a family who have no tolerance for people who don’t eat what’s going.
Frances wants to eat bread and jam instead of eggs.
Is the school mate a plan or an ally. I find him insufferable. “Well, goodo for you,” I wanted to tell him, and, “I don’t remember asking for all those details about your damn lunch.”
The mother has a secret plan, and we see it play out. The mother is basically a trickster, and I guess this is why she appeals to many mother co-readers; trickster mums are rare in children’s books.
Frances grows more and more tired of bread and jam. When the mother serves Frances the same dinner as the rest of the family is having, Frances is so keen for something different that she eats it up without complaining. Mother has won this battle.
Frances realises that a varied diet is an interesting diet.
Frances is eating a varied school lunch.
We extrapolate that Frances is permanently fixed and that she’ll never look at bread and jam in the same way again.
I was prompted to read Bread and Jam for Frances after seeing the following image memed around the Internet. It’s actually an abbreviated version of the relevant page, and almost functions as a tagline. In abbreviated form, without any context, this image is perfectly suited to modern meme culture. Perhaps it encapsulates our collective existential loneliness.
- The Evolution of Breakfasts in Fiction. In the 1960s, America was in the middle of switching over from cooked breakfasts to breads and extruded cereals. Frances in this story has clearly been influenced by the modern Continental breakfast (probably from ads on the TV) but her old-school mother resists.
- Egg Symbolism. I wonder how many humans across history have found eggs disgusting. Until battery farming, eggs were a hard won delicacy and an important element of many diets.
- The idea that all of the other kids will get something, and that you, due to your own moral shortcoming will miss out, was utilised by Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit, and in many stories after that, including Little Golden Books’ super popular The Poky Little Puppy. But can you think of any modern picture books which use this kind of punishment plot, withholding food from children? This was certainly how I was brought up. But I suspect it’s had its day.
- Russell and Lillian were married Americans who moved to England together in 1969. However, Lillian moved back to America about a year later. Russell stayed in England and married someone else in the mid 1970s. They each continued to have a full and varied career in children’s books, independently. Russell died in 2011. Lillian died in 1998.
- See also my collected notes on The Mouse and His Child.
“Mercy Watson Fights Crime” is book number three in the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo, first published 2006. This series is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.
SETTING OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME
Where in America is this series set? Based only on fictional representations, this feels Southern to me. (Do Americans get that? I have to guess.)
This is archetypal, mythical 1950s America, in which happiness consists of a wife at home wearing an apron making everyone lots of delicious food. The houses are large, the gardens manicured.
What do I mean by ‘archetypal, mythical 1950s’? Picture books are not exact depictions of real homes. When it comes to picture books, illustrations will likely include:
- wooden beds with sturdy bed beads and foot boards
- a chair in the bedroom
- a glass of water next to the bed, and a conically shaped bedside lamp
- a large, warm kitchen with 1950s appliances (e.g. the chrome toaster, which has since come back into fashion, but has a retro feel)
It has become clear in 2019, with the publication of Mercy’s origin story, that this is not literally 1950s America. Chris Van Dusen was charged with the task of drawing a cute, young, highly loveable pig, and in one interview admits that he initially forgot to age-down Mr and Mrs Watson. He subsequently put sideburns on Mr Watson and gave Mrs Watson a fringe. This suggests it was the 1970s when Mercy was young, which actually makes this 1980s America. (How long do pigs live? This is getting depressing… Okay, I looked it up: 15-20 years. Could be the 1990s.)
Apart from all that, the following image is reminiscent of American TV shows from the 1950s and 60s, which made use of split screen. We rarely see split screen used today unless the filmmaker is deliberately evoking a mid-20th century vibe. (More correctly, the split screen has evolved. You could say we’re living in the age of the split screen — so often we are watching TV while simultaneously on the Internet.)
Even the cartoon convention of ‘screech’ zig-zags emerging from the toaster is reminiscent of Superhero comics from the Cold War era.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
How does Kate diCamillo achieve that? First, she opens with a cosy goodnight scene. You can’t get much more reassuring than this:
Mr. Watson and Mrs. Watson have a pig named Mercy.the opening to Mercy Watson Fights Crime
Each night, they sing the pig to sleep.
Then they go to bed.
“Good night, my dear,” says Mr. Watson.
“Good night, my darling,” says Mrs. Watson.
“Oink,” says Mercy.
Chris Van Dusen’s illustration reinforces the love that the Watsons feel for their pig — they’ve even had Mercy’s initial inscribed into her bed head. But look again. Look at the shadows. You could argue that, well, of course the shadows must be there — if the illustration contains a light source, then there must be shadows. But every single thing in an illustration is on purpose. Nothing existed here before the blank page. That strong shadow which falls across the bed? That’s ‘The Other Parents’ a la Coraline. A shadow that strong and defined gives the illustration an exciting, menacing vibe. Van Dusen could easily have made that bedspread light orange and it would’ve looked fine. The addition of that shadow is a master stroke.
Compare with the next bedroom scene — a simple one-point perspective, which is a useful layout when the illustrator wants to avoid any scary art noir associations. In the illustration below, Mercy has heard a noise from downstairs. She’s not scared at all because she hears the toaster screech and thinks someone is making toast.
Notice how Van Dusen has avoided casting the bedroom in darkness. Yet no one has switched the light on. The brightly-lit bedroom is an outworking of Mercy’s state of mind ie. not worried one bit. And if Mercy’s not worried, readers needn’t worry either.
The shadow which does exist is of Mercy’s own head —comical rather than menacing.
STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON FIGHTS CRIME
Leroy Ninker is a small man with a big dream: he wants to be a cowboy. But for now he’s just a thief. In fact, Leroy is robbing the Watsons’ kitchen right this minute! As he drags the toaster across the counter—screeeeeech—and drops it into his bag—clannngggg—little does he know that a certain large pig who loves toast with a great deal of butter is stirring from sleep. Soon a comedy of errors (not to mention the buttery sweets in his pocket) will lead this little man on the wild and raucous rodeo ride he’s always dreamed of!from the Teacher’s Guide issued by Candlewick Press
I believe Leroy is the main character of this story, so will break down the structure accordingly. This is also a carnivalesque story, which has its own specific structure.
Importantly, Leroy is not very smart. (Not sure how much he thinks toasters fetch on the black market.) He personifies objects and can’t work out how to get out of the house without disturbing a sleeping pig. More than that, he’s burgling someone’s house and doesn’t seem to realise he should leave the scene afterwards rather than ride around on a pig!
Leroy is also endearing because of his imaginative capacity. While riding Mercy, we are told he imagines riding a dangerous bucking horse. He’s a Walter Mitty character — harmless, with big ideas about himself. This ability to sink into a paracosm is also his downfall.
Ostensibly, Leroy wants to steal items from other people’s houses. This is the outworking of a deeper desire, which is to imagine himself a fearsome, respected and tough bandit, reminiscent of the fantasy of the Wild West.
Let’s consider Leroy as Opponent here for a moment.
Leroy Ninker is introduced in an ominously tinted scene. This is the archetypal robber, with the eye mask, the sack flung over his back. These would make him generic, much like the robbers in Walter The Farting Dog, in which generic robbers are useful. But diCamillo is turning the robber himself into a comedic character, and a comedic character requires a distinguishing feature or two. Kate diCamillo has made use of a mash-up of archetypes to arrive at a unique man:
- archetypal robber
- archetypal child who wants to grow up to be a cowboy.
Leroy is basically a Cat In The Hat character, who turns up when he isn’t meant to and wreaks havoc. While wreaking havoc, the child viewpoint character (Mercy) has a lot of fun.
Before she lets Mercy have fun, diCamillo reveals Leroy as an unthreatening character, despite his sticky fingered ways. He contains several layers of comic irony:
- A small man with a big hat (in which the hat symbolises his self-importance)
- He makes plenty of noise himself while telling the toaster to be quiet
- He has sticky fingers both literally and metaphorically, because his favourite food is butterscotch.
But what about the enduring opponent of Eugenia Lincoln next door? It’s a rule of this setting that the sisters must appear at one point, in which the narration switches point of view. It’s also necessary for the plot to work, because Leroy turns out to be Mercy’s comrade in fun.
Leroy will break into Mercy’s house and see if he can get away with stealing things. He will wear his cowboy costume because this is basically cosplay.
His Plan looks set to fail when Mercy trots downstairs thinking someone is making toast. Instead, expectations are foiled, because Mercy doesn’t realise this guy is a burglar. How does diCamillo turn this into a comedic situation? First there’s the comedic obliviousness — characters who don’t realise what we realise are always laughable (dramatic irony). But on top of that, diCamillo slows the pacing right down. Narratologists would say the story is set to ‘pause’.
One way a writer can achieve that is by saying what is not happening. This was pointed out to by by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Mercy sees that there is no toaster, no bread and no butter. But she wholly fails to see what IS there; she is single-mindedly fixated on buttered toast.
In a carnivalesque story, the ‘Battle’ is an episode of extreme fun. Here it is the comedic sight of a tiny bandit cowboy riding a pig, all the while thinking he’s an actual cowboy.
Comedy is heightened when we are shown other characters enjoying the spectacle with us. Eugenia and Baby come in handy for that — they are functioning not so much as Opponents but as the two old men from The Muppet Show who make sardonic comments about everyone else in their vicinity.
The characters experience no anagnorisis because this is a comedic story in which the characters remain less knowledgeable about their situation than the readers, who have seen a broader picture. We’ve seen Mercy going to bed, the inside of Eugenia and Baby’s home, the arrival of the robber and the conversations between the police officers. This is true omniscient narration, and keeps the reader in audience superior position, feeling smart.
The revelation is simply a conclusion of fun. If we haven’t realised immediately we now know that Leroy’s penchant for butterscotch is going to be his downfall, because Mercy will accost him for it. Significantly, diCamillo made sure to ‘casually’ mention (twice) that Leroy enjoys butterscotch. (I was very slow on the uptake and didn’t even connect butterscotch sweets to Mercy’s love of buttered toast.) By the time we see Mercy on top of Leroy we’re wondering what she’s after. Then all is revealed: She’s sniffed out the treats!
We might assume Leroy is taken to prison, though subsequent tales in the off-shoot series reveal that Leroy finds gainful employ at the cinema. The rule of this series is that everyone sits down to enjoy buttered toast. Order has been restored.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Some people enjoy wine and food pairing — I enjoy pairing children’s stories with stories for adults. Compare Mercy Watson Fights Crime with “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” by John Cheever.
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a well-known short story by American writer Flannery O’Connor, published 1953. So much has already been said about this story — I will look into its structure from a plotting point of view. It’s also about time I read this story. Without reading Flannery O’Connor’s most famous work I can’t fully appreciate Alice Munro’s 1990s spin on it.
Hear a rare recording of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, at Open Culture.
In Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man in Hard to Find,” wherein a southern matriarch watches—or rather listens—as one-by-one the members of her family are executed by one of a pair of escaped serial killers in the woods close behind her, never once are we told how frightened and horrified she must feel. We aren’t told how she feels at all. The horror implicit in the scene is left entirely to our imagination. Which makes it all the more horrific.
STORYWORLD OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
A white family goes on a road trip. They are travelling from Tennessee through Georgia to Florida for a holiday. The grandmother, who would’ve been born in the late 1800s, shows a pitiful if kindly attitude towards the Black child they pass on the way. No one else in that car says anything about him at all, except the observation that he is not wearing pants.
THE ENVIRONMENT AS ENDLESSLY RENEWABLE AND GIVING
It is difficult to imagine this attitude now, but The Grandmother tells her grandchildren not to throw their lunch rubbish out the window. The parents remain silent, suggesting this behaviour would’ve been fine with them. It’s only a small detail but reminds me of a scene from Mad Men, in which Don and Betty take the children on a picnic. When they’re done they just leave all the rubbish in the park. Is that what people really did back then? I guess it must be.
When I grew up in 1980s New Zealand there was a TV advertisement showing two children in the back seat of a car, eating fast food, throwing the rubbish out the window. The children were understood to be greedy, lazy and destructive to the environment. The message was to be a Tidy Kiwi. I thought these children were rascals, and couldn’t believe anyone was allowed to eat in the car (we weren’t) let alone throw rubbish out the window. Although the Tidy Kiwi campaign started in the 1960s, by the 1980s, the ‘don’t litter’ message had gotten through to almost everyone. Throughout the 1990s, we were fed the message that if we picked up our own rubbish, we were sufficiently taking care of the environment. By the early 2000s, that had morphed into ‘recycle correctly’. The 2010s and beyond are a different story — right now the onus is on the consumer to avoid buying goods in ‘unnecessary packaging’ in the first place, to create as little rubbish as possible.
Of course this is part of a larger, deeply, more deadly problem — transportation, electricity production and industry are the main culprits in destroying the actual environment at a deep level, and all the ‘responsible consumerism’ won’t do much to help it, other than assuage our own anxiety-guilt. (Not to say we shouldn’t do every little thing we can.)
They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy.
Red Sam, who owns and runs the place, complains with The Grandmother that the world is going to wreck and ruin. The title of the story is a quote from Red Sam. The Grandmother and Red Sam are of the same generation. These are characters who would’ve lived through America’s depression, so it’s interesting they see 1950s America — an era still romanticised — as a downgrade on that. What, exactly, has been downgraded to them? Do they perhaps look back fondly on a time when slavery was legal? Are they able to put that into words, or would acknowledging it create uncomfortable dissonance with their own self image as ‘good people’?
THE PLANTATION HOUSE OUTSIDE TOOMSBORO
In slightly earlier times this is a plantation that would’ve been run by Black slaves. But this is not what the grandmother remembers:
the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. … the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall
The present scenery:
The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them. … The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.
This feels like a Hotel California situation. That final sentence leads me to wonder: Are they are going to make it out? Sure enough, this dangerous description of a road foreshadows the accident:
The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. … Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
The woods are of course a trope from long ago, often a symbol for the subconscious.
CHARACTERS OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
Flannery O’Connor’s characters are often described as grotesque, which has a specific meaning in literature:
Nowadays, when people talk about “the grotesque,” their meaning is closer to its adjectival form: “very strange or ugly in a way that is not normal or natural.” The grotesque in literature focuses on the human body, and all the ways that it can be distorted or exaggerated: its aim is to simultaneously elicit our empathy and disgust. Very much like the uncanny, the grotesque draws its power from the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the familiar distorted. Gothic fiction often has elements of the grotesque, such as Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein or the off-kilter characters in Flannery O’Conner’s stories. In its earlier iterations, the term “grotesque” was used in a way that overlapped more with “the uncanny,” referring to works that blurred the line between the real and the fantastic, such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the human protagonist is transformed into an insect. It is interesting to see the ways in which these terms overlap, and it’s important to note that their exact “definitions” can be hard to nail down because of the way they have changed over time.
THE FAMILY ON THE ROAD TRIP
The Grandmother — Has connections in Tennessee. Does not want to go to Florida because she has heard there’s a criminal on the loose. She is inclined to worry unnecessarily without being able to process probabilities and likelihood. For instance, she won’t leave the cat at home in case he brushes against the knob of the gas burner and asphyxiates himself. (Has this ever happened in the history of the world?) The Grandmother is therefore revealed to be a fantasist as well as a worrier. And this is why I interpret this plot as a metaphor or as a dream, probably endured by The Grandmother as she nodded off in the backseat, rather than as ‘real’ within the world of the story. (Not that it really matters whether the car wreck and the hearse really turned up or not — this doesn’t change any of the themes in the story.)
Bailey — The Grandmother’s son. She lives with him and his family. He doesn’t have much fun in him, but he is wearing bright blue parrots all over his shirt, as if to convince himself he’s going on holiday. This reminds me of the scene in Office Space, where the boss tells his staff to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday, if they like, because it will be fun. (The staff don’t look like it will be fun — Hawaiian shirts will only remind them of how un-fun it is to be stuck in a cubicle.) Within the world of this story, the brightness of the shirt is equally ironic — it is the shirt he is wearing as he’s marched off for execution.
Bailey’s wife — ‘a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage’. We don’t know much else about her, except her grim acceptance of her own fate, much like Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men.
The Baby — sits in the front seat on its mother’s lap, which gives me anxiety. I grew up with a TV advertisement which showed a baby flying through a windscreen, and the devastated, slow-mo aftermath. (It’s amazing what we kids weren’t allowed to watch compared to the trauma we was exposed to during regular TV shows, including the shows aimed at kids.)
June Star — the granddaughter, blonde hair. Sassy. Funny. Cheeky.
John Wesley — the grandson, 8 years old, stocky with glasses. ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’ This is according to the God-like (Devil-like?) killer, so I take it as a fairly accurate assessment of his character.
Pitty Sing — the cat. The Grandmother hides the cat in the car. Eventually the cat will reveal itself, angering Bailey, foreshadowing death. This cat turns The Grandmother into a bit of a witch archetype — the sort of witch who can divine the future.
The Misfit — has broken out of the Federal Penitentiary and is apparently headed towards Florida. Strong white teeth. Menacing. Like a character out of a Western, he wears a black hat. Has ditched his clothes and is not wearing a shirt. This tends to make a criminal look more confident. (I’m thinking of Kevin Bacon’s character in The River Wild.) He wears no armour at all, because he is confident he doesn’t need it. When he recounts all the things he has seen he is older than I first imagined. Wears glasses. ‘Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.’
Bobby Lee — one of the men in the black hearse
Hiram — one of the men in the black hearse, the one who seems to know the most about engines.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND”
The Grandmother is the character we know the most about. Her reactions are described in the most detail. She worries (needlessly) but eventually the very thing she worries about most comes true within the world of the story. So if we read this story at its most literal level, she doesn’t worry needlessly, on this particular occasion.
What gets her into this mess is that she has misremembered some roads from long ago. But if we take a fatalistic view of the story, it wouldn’t have mattered which roads they took — bad would’ve come for them wherever they were. And when I say ‘bad’, I mean death. The black hearse, of course, is an old woman facing her own impending death. Perhaps, metaphorically, the old woman dies on this trip (but in a much less melodramatic way).
Right to the end, The Grandmother has a black and white view of Good and Evil. She believes she is good — she is good because she looks nice; she is good because she comes from a good family (as if lineage is the thing). She thinks that these things will save her.
She doesn’t want to go on holiday but she doesn’t want to stay home, either. She wants to feel as safe as she can, wherever she happens to be, and to remain a member of the Good Gang.
The Misfit and co come along to prove that the very thing she’s most worried about will come to fruition.
After the car rolls, the family plan to wait for someone to pass by and pick them up.
When The Grandmother realises they’re in great danger she tries appealing to God and offering money. Finally she tries to persuade The Misfit that they are all related somehow, in the scheme of things — appealing to his humanity (or perhaps she’s genuinely addled because The Misfit is wearing her dead son’s ironically loud-print shirt).
The scene where The Misfit turns up and shoots the adults is the Battle scene. Murder happens ostensibly because the grandmother recognises who he is and tells him she knows. There’s a chance they all would’ve left with their lives, otherwise. Or would they?
Did the grandmother learn anything about life before she died? She probably came to the conclusion that life contains the evil she always imagined it did — she’s been vindicated.
But she starts off quite hopeful — so long as she behaves correctly, going through the correct rituals in life, everything will turn out fine. By the end of the story all hope has been quashed, in the face of outright sociopathy, though The Grandmother never gives up, in contrast to her resigned daughter-in-law.
The reader’s revelation? Well, my takeaway point is that bad things happen to anyone, and sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some churches teach that so long as you do everything right, your life and afterlife will be excellent. This idea poses a serious dilemma for any free-thinking person — what to make of very unfortunate individuals? To me, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a critique on the idea that it’s possible to divide humanity into heaven-bound and hell-bound individuals.
The family are dead and the baddies keep going wherever they’re going to. The Misfit has a Zen outlook on life — he doesn’t remember what crimes put him in jail. It’s likely he’ll end up back in jail and won’t care to remember the reason. He’s almost a supernatural creature rather than a real one — an earthly Grim Reaper.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Annie Proulx’s short story “A Run Of Bad Luck“, because the way in which the reader is asked to consider fate.
Alice Munro’s re-visioning, “Save The Reaper“.
Slate’s Audiobook Special (The Flannery O’Connor part starts at 22:20)
Header photo by Matt Howard
“Pine” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This published 2010, written by Robin Black. This is a wonderful example of a contemporary story loosely based on an old fairytale—this time it’s Bluebeard.
“Pine” is also an excellent example of a story which centres a homophone in which several of its meanings have been extracted for narrative purposes: Pine as in wood and pine as in longing. This serves to unify the story. Importantly, Heidi’s kitchen is NOT made of pine. This would be perhaps too trite and convenient. The narrator thinks the kitchen SHOULD have a pine floor rather than a hard marble one.
Look out for how Robin Black uses the symbol of the beach chair in winter to show that the main character is out of sync with other people’s perception of time.
NARRATION IN “PINE”
“Pine” is written with first person narration. The opening scene describes a kitchen — the kitchen of a woman named Heidi, whose stand-out feature is that she is missing one leg.
THE BLUEBEARD CONNECTION
What is the story function of Heidi? Why does this first section and this character exist?
First, this is the author establishing a pattern: Our main character is an outsider in general, not just with her friend/boyfriend.
Second, the artificial leg is highly symbolic. Our main character feels she has lost a part of herself when she lost her husband. Heidi serves as a contrast character but in a way that’s physically apparent — some people get the emotional equivalent of an artificial limb after bereavement, which means they’re never quite the same but are able to function nonetheless. In contrast, others never manage to get to that point, forever stuck in utter despair because you feel incomplete.
“Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” I reach across and pour us both more wine. “Do you suppose she keeps them all? Do you suppose she has them locked up somewhere? Like Bluebeard’s wives?Pine, by Robin Black
In the Bluebeard fairytales, a broken man murders a succession of wives. This is a sort of modern, gender-flipped version in which a bereft wife symbolically ‘murders’ her own chance at happiness with (not coincidentally) five people in this story: The three women in the kitchen, who she might otherwise have become friends with, and with Kevin, her friend/boyfriend.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “PINE”
Like the first person narrator, the reader is a visitor in Heidi’s kitchen. Like the narrator we, too, feel left out of the discussion between woman friends who obviously have a long backstory and know each other well. This is a relatable situation — we’ve all been the newcomer at some point. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
This is the narrator’s initial Shortcoming. Drill one layer deeper — her One Great Shortcoming — the shortcoming that is ruining her life is that she is failing to achieve new and meaningful human connections since her husband died.
Extrapolating from that: The reason she doesn’t want to get close to anyone is because people just up and die on you. Why risk your feelings like that?
The following song was written by an artist whose own mother lost her husband at a young age to an aneurysm in his sleep. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqj8_RdLoJE
(Supposed) Moral Shortcoming: Running hot and cold with the friend/boyfriend while failing to either open herself fully to the idea of a relationship or be clear that it’s never going to happen.
Of course, no one ever owes anyone else a relationship, even if sex has been had. There is another thread to this story which is ripe for discussion. “Pine” is not necessarily a tragedy simply because a woman didn’t get together with a man. Perhaps he just isn’t the right one? Perhaps they were important to each other for a short time, and that time had its upper limit.
This is therefore a story about the Erotics of (Emotional) Abstinence and reminds us that life is short, and that life comprises a series of episodes which have distinct endings, each ending serving to prepare us for our own death.
The following passage reminds me of a technique utilised also by Alice Munro — the inclusion of young women and older women. The reader is encouraged to consider these differently aged characters as one person, only at different stages of her life. An older woman looks at a younger one and sees her younger self gone; alternatively she may look at an older woman and see herself in three decades’ time:
…they call my daughter Ally one day and then Lyssa the next, as though she were their property, to name and claim. As though she no longer belongs to me and only I have not figured that out. Deceptively clothed in bell-bottoms and horizontal stripes, outfits reinvented from my own youth, they are the trumpeters of my daughter’s departure, the harbingers of yet another loss. They are the clock ticking forward with no concern for me.“Pine” by Robin Black
It’s all to do with creating that sense that time comes for us all and there’s no going back.
Tragically, we never know exactly when those inflection points are going to be, because sometimes, other people end things for us.
Perhaps the narrator wants human connection, but she is sabotaging this wish with her actions. Instead she settles for a mimicry of human connection — visits to the kitchen of a new acquaintance; occasional sex with the friend who wants to become her boyfriend.
It’s not a level playing field. My foes do not play fair.“Pine”, Robin Black
Who are the foes? ‘Death and all of its traveling companions’, we are told in the next sentence. However, any given stories needs human opposition who stand in for these existential enemies.
This is an anti-romance, so her main opponent is the man who wants to be her boyfriend. Though they both want the same thing, he’s emotionally able to have it while she is not. So they will remain forever in opposition.
Heidi is also an opponent in this story, and an excellent example of an ‘opponent’ who does nothing whatsoever to deserve that status. Instead, she is the unwitting enemy in the main character’s own psychological struggles. When the narrator says Heidi should have put down a pine floor rather than a hard one, the narrator is really criticising herself for being so emotionally ‘hard and cold’ (like marble). When the narrator says Heidi is in denial, it is the narrator who is actually in denial. This is clear from the second paragraph: “If it were me”. This is the author telling us that Heidi IS ‘me’.
“I almost envy Heidi,” our narrator says, after Heidi’s husband puts her hand on Heidi’s artificial knee, and when it’s clear that Heidi can somehow feel that gesture. In stories about two women, the women often envy each other, craving in another woman what she doesn’t have herself.
Keep people at bay. Don’t get too close. Do the bare minimum to ward off utter loneliness.
We have a passive character here, so it’s up to the opponent to create the conflict. This argument they have isn’t exactly planned — rather, the boyfriend seems to snap, and says things he’s been thinking for a while.
Sure enough, the boyfriend confronts her at her daughter’s sports match — a symbolic place to have a Battle scene.
The Opponent is the one who has the Anagnorisis. He realises our main character is not open to a relationship with him, ever. https://youtu.be/rg-3a6Hy-yc
The concept of Main Character is a little problematic in stories like these because normally the very definition of Main Character is ‘the one who changes the most’ ie. the one who has the Anagnorisis. Technically, you could argue the boyfriend is the main character, except we don’t see the setting through his eyes in this particular narrative. Even the title is named after a feeling of Kevin’s:
“I’ll bet he’s secretly pining over you,” [Alyssa] says
This is a rare example of a story in which the main character starts with Slavery, has a chance at Freedom but because of a failure to have any sort of Anagnorisis, returns instead to Slavery.
Another example of this kind of story is The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. Likewise in that story, the love interest is the one who has the Anagnorisis — Randy’s girlfriend moves on without him.